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Ryan's safety net [Editorial]

It didn't take Democrats much time to denounce Rep. Paul Ryan's latest plan for addressing poverty in this country. The main feature of the Republican's proposed "Opportunity Grant" would be to roll a lot of social welfare programs together and leave it mostly to states to decide how the money is spent, which sounds a great deal like the block grant proposals of the past.

Critics included Maryland's own Rep. Chris Van Hollen, ranking member on the House Budget Committee, who said the former vice presidential nominee has used the mantra of "reform" as a cover to cut safety-net programs. Others have described it as nothing short of an all-out attack on low-income families and children — or at least an effort to shield Republicans from criticism as heartless even as they focus on cutting taxes for the rich.

We think that's a bit harsh. While Mr. Ryan's track record in this area is not great — he, like others in his party, tend to see any aid given by government to those living at or below the poverty line as merely perpetuating their plight — it's hardly better to assume every existing federal program is efficient and effective. What deserves to be applauded is Mr. Ryan's premise — that he is interested in reform that is "budget neutral."

That social welfare programs may no longer be identified by the GOP as a target of budget cuts would be a great first step. And here's another — Mr. Ryan has also advocated an expansion of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit program, which benefits low-income working families.

Democrats have long supported an expansion of the EITC, and if Mr. Ryan could convince enough members of his own party to do this same, it would pass tomorrow. The tax credit has sometimes been thrown around by the GOP as an alternative to a higher minimum wage, but, in reality, both have a role to play. The tax credit is efficient because it offers cash, the most flexible benefit, but is less easily construed as discouraging work.

The biggest potential mistake in the Ryan plan is that he would lump food stamps (officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) into his grant program and thus potentially cap its overall cost. The problem here is that food stamps ought to be regarded as a form of emergency aid to make certain that Americans, particularly children, don't go hungry when times are tough.

In an economic downturn, demand for food stamps is inevitably going to rise, as it did after the 2008 recession, and so will the cost as the unemployed — and underemployed — seek to feed their families. This is entirely appropriate, not only to keep Americans from going hungry but because it's precisely the sort of government spending that helps communities survive and rebuild in the wake of an economic downturn.

We categorically reject the notion that food stamps, a benefit that amounts to all of $127.39 per person per month in Maryland, drives poverty. That's a bit like suggesting the quarter you gave the homeless man sitting on a grate yesterday is the chief reason for his circumstances. It takes a Dickensian level of class antagonism to see every unemployed person as a freeloader and every attempt to help such individuals as destructive.

But Mr. Ryan does raise a question worthy of further exploration: Given greater flexibility, might states find more efficient ways to help fight poverty? We are naturally skeptical in the current political environment, but it's an idea that probably shouldn't be rejected out of hand.

Make no mistake, states aren't exactly doing a bang-up job with Medicaid. The failure of some states to accept the federally-funded Medicaid expansion that was tied to the Affordable Care Act has already had an adverse impact on this same population. If two-dozen states are willing to deny health care coverage to the poor when the cost to their own budgets is so minimal, can they be trusted with food, shelter and child care, too?

Probably not. Yet Mr. Ryan deserves a little bit of credit. It would be much easier for Republicans to simply avoid the topic entirely at this point, particularly as polls show their chances of recapturing a Senate majority are improving. Whether they do or not, let's hope that Congress can embrace two sensible principles — no to balancing the federal budget on the backs of the poor and yes to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. As for the rest of the package, Mr. Ryan may need to go back to his poverty listening tour and try again.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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